Lessons from Malheur

The irony is ripe for the picking: the armed, militant protesters at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon waved American flags as they relinquished their posts after a forty-day standoff with federal officials, decrying government overreach while at the same time waving a flag that represents the institution they denounce. The four hold-outs, three men and a woman, left the refuge the same way they arrived — on roads created by the U.S. government — and the final protester conveyed his tirade against public ownership of western lands via a live internet stream — a signal cast across the world by way of federal investments in technology and infrastructure.

As humorous as it may be, an armed “protest,” dangerous and a threat to the safety and duties of federally sworn officers, is no protest: it is a felony. That these men and women and their leaders, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, decided to air their grievances through a hostile takeover of public lands instead of attempting to settle their disputes over “government overreach” in the judicial system reveals their backwards logic.

Perhaps, though, this group’s faulty reading of the constitution can provide some helpful guidance to the rest of the “angry people” — the most outspoken of whom are several of the current presidential candidates — about how best to proceed in a democratic republic.

When the militant group at Malheur realized their tactics, brandishing automatic weapon, tearing down signs and barricades at the refuge and ultimately provoking the arrival of federal officials (who, as most law enforcement officers might, were carrying guns), the group claimed to hope for a “peaceful resolution.” It seems counterintuitive: if you hoped for a peaceful resolution, why would you show up, decked out in camouflage, body armor and guns, when the initial combatants were but a cluster of Sage Grouse and a nearby elk?

When one of the protesters, Lavoy Finicum, was shot and killed by officers after a traffic stop led to a brief shootout, a spokesman for the group claimed the FBI was “hell-bent on war.” Again: if you arrive with ammunition and an arsenal of guns, don’t expect a batch of warm brownies and a sit-down conversation over how to best resolve your differences of opinion. Even by going to court, you would find pitchers of water at the benches.

Interestingly enough, it was not until after the two Bundy brothers were arrested that they issued a statement through a lawyer saying they would take the battle over public lands and grazing fees to court. A supporter of the group’s beliefs (though not their tactics) Nevada state legislator Michele Fiore said, “Now we go from the refuge to our next battleground, which is the court system and legislation,” exemplifying the contradictions and hypocrisy of the “anti-government” groups across the country.

It’s funny — or not so funny — that the group wants to use a federal institution to disband the federal institutions. And funnier, perhaps, that a supporter of the group and an advocate of decreasing federal power, is a government official herself. I wonder if she knows that without grazing fees, she has no salary — or an office?

And worst of all, one of the final protesters said as he left the refuge that his anger was that he had, “peacefully voted, and nothing is ever done.” I am willing to wager that many voters in America feel this way, but millions of voters do not express disapproval over policies by taking a weapon and waging war on the United States.

Ironically, Ted Cruz — the biggest “small government” advocate of the conservative presidential candidates this year — said this week in response to liberal policies, “If you want to live in a socialist country, move to a socialist country.”

Granted, he won’t bridge the gap between the parties, but I am tempted to say the same thing to the occupiers, who, by the way, according to an interview in an op-ed published by the New York Times on Jan.29 , believe Jesus wrote the U.S. constitution: if you want to live in a country where lawlessness and armed protest are based in theocratic principles, get out of the United States.
And a lesson to all the people who dislike taxes or claim government overreach or an attack on liberty when military-grade rifles can only be put in the hands of the National Guard: don’t drive on the interstates or any publicly-maintained road; don’t use the post office or expect to pick up a phone and hear a dial tone; don’t hope that calling 911 will result in an officer arriving at your door to check on you.
If you want to change a government system you loathe, do it the same way Americans have for more than two centuries: run for office. Or vote.
And if you don’t amass a large enough following — well, take a hint.
If you don’t get your way in America, the solution, clearly, is not to wage a small-scale war. Peaceful institutions, and a constitution outlining their functions and structures, arose from an armed insurrection — and with the hope that a violent rebellion would not have to happen again. To all the “anti-government” groups: stop waving the flag of a country whose laws you break; reread your constitutions (not the one annotated by a right-wing Christian church); and, for everyone’s sake, leave your weapons at home.